Education is Key to Flying Fox Survival

Merlin Tuttle
10/25/17

In response to the Mongabay article of August 29 titled, “Bats and viruses: Beating back a bad reputation,” Dr. Sheema Abdul Aziz, commented as follows on September 5:

Sheema in a durian tree.

“Actually this article neglected to mention another huge problem caused by these negative representations of bats. It’s not just about deliberate human killings of bats – even where bats are not being killed by people, the repercussions of this negative reputation are still damaging in indirect ways because it affects efforts and funding for research and conservation. I am currently the only person working on the conservation ecology of Pteropus in Malaysia, where there has been such a disproportionate amount of attention, effort, and money put into researching ONLY the virology and public health aspects of these bats. Hardly anyone is interested in looking at the conservation ecology aspect; never mind that these bats are important pollinators and seed dispersers, and are severely threatened by hunting – all topics which desperately require more attention and work. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be constantly approached by other researchers who are only interested in collaborating on virology, or to be told that I can only get funding if I include a disease and public health aspect in my project. Ultimately these bats will go extinct if people – including researchers and funders – are simply too focused on worrying about whether we’re going to catch diseases from them, instead of trying to mitigate the threats that we humans present to them. This kind of attitude is very, very damaging to bat conservation.”

Dr. Aziz explaining flying fox pollination to Mak Long, owner of the durian orcharad where her Ph.D. rhesis research was conducted. MTBC photos are playing a vital role in educating islanders to a better appreciation of flying foxes.
Sheema using a light microscope to look for pollen grains in flying fox droppings.

Dr. Aziz is one of a very few researchers in her part of the world dedicated to helping people understand the economic and ecological importance of conserving flying foxes. Her research titled, “Pollination by the locally endangered island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus) enhances fruit production of the economically important durian (Durio zibethinus),” recently appeared in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

In her paper, she provides information critical to convincing islanders to protect flying foxes, namely that they are playing a key role as pollinators of one of Southeast Asia’s most valued crops, not causing damage as previously believed. She used camera and video traps to document that island flying foxes (Pteropus hyomelanus) do not damage durian flowersas even some researchers had suspected. Video traps clearly absolved the bats. Island flying foxes and cave nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea) are major pollinators. The damage was caused by plantain squirrels (Callosciurus notatus) who often ate immature flowers.

 

Aziz also notes that flying foxes sometimes can become a nuisance when roosting too near people, causing both noise and odor problems. She hopes to find a way to harmlessly convince these bats to move farther away, so they will be more welcome. There is an urgent need for education to minimize negative biases while solving legitimate nuisances. Aziz emphasizes the need to find solutions to real problems instead of needlessly scaring people about rare threats.

Large flying foxes (Pteropus vampyrus) have wingspans of nearly six feet, the largest of any bat. They are widespread in Southeast Asia, Borneo and the Philippines, but are in alarming decline due to over-harvesting for human food, and are often needlessly killed when entering orchards.

She reports, “I have been using your [Merlin Tuttle’s] photos, especially the amazing shots of P. vampyrus, in all the presentations I give. It’s enormously helpful because the only shots I have of that species are the poor dead ones shot by a hunter, and it’s not a very nice picture at all. I think it would be almost impossible for me to get a good photo of P. vampyrus here in Malaysia! Your close-up shots of Pteropus pollinating and feeding on fruit are also particularly useful for illustrating bat ecosystem services – I used these in a public talk I gave, at an event organized by the Malaysian Heritage and History Club, which was very well received. And of course, I also used your photos in the awareness video! I now use them anytime I want to talk about bat ecosystem services.”

An island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus), the focus of Dr. Azizes’ primary research.

Aziz is devoting her career to helping people solve problems while benefiting from the essential contributions of flying foxes. If bats are to survive in sufficient numbers to fulfil their critical environmental and ecological roles, Aziz, and many more like her will need all the help they can get. Just saving a few endangered remnants is not enough!

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Australian Flying Foxes Need Help

By Merlin Tuttle
1/10/17

As one who in 1985 played a lead role in convincing the New South Wales (NSW) Minister for the Environment and Planning, Bob Carr, to provide statewide protection for flying foxes, I am extremely disappointed to see  such progress reversed decades later by a predecessor. Grey-headed flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers upon which many of Australia’s unique plants and animals rely.

Nevertheless, their numbers have declined dramatically over the past hundred years. They first were massively exterminated by fruit growers, because during periodic droughts, when forests failed to flower, starving bats would invade orchards. Thanks to excellent research, orchards can now be protected. However, the bats’ traditional roosting habitats often have been overrun by urbanization. Once again these bats are in trouble, often with few options remaining. In small numbers, they may be enjoyed. But during unpredictable spikes in gum tree flowering, these sophisticated commuters can be attracted long distances. When bats weighing up to two pounds and having wingspans of more than three feet suddenly increase by as much as 10-fold, noise and odor can become a serious problem.

Gray-headed and other flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers for Australian forests. However, they are killed in massive numbers during occasional droughts when native trees fail to flower, forcing them to resort ot orchard fruit which could be protected with netting.
Gray-headed and other flying foxes are essential pollinators and seed dispersers for Australian forests. This grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) pollinating a rose gum tree (Angophora costata). Flying foxes are the continent’s most important long-distance pollinators and seed dispersers. However, they are killed in massive numbers during occasional droughts when native trees fail to flower, forcing them to resort to orchard fruit which could be protected with netting.

Excellent means of protecting fruit orchards have been developed, but urban nuisances have not yet been studied sufficiently to find viable solutions. As flying fox experts, Justin Welbergen and Peggy Eby recently explained in their insightful article, Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying foxes in urban Australiagrey-headed flying foxes can travel thousands of kilometers in a single year and quickly respond to changing conditions far beyond the boundaries of any one state. To resolve nuisances without loss of essential services, we must learn much more about what attracts them to specific roosts and how best to provide suitable alternatives when their choices create nuisances. (more…)

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“The Pollinator” by Artist Rhea Groepper Pettit

"The Pollinator" by Rhea Groepper Pettit
Painting by Rhea Groepper Pettit

Rhea Groepper Pettit is an artist with “a passion for earth’s residents: people and other species.” She loves bats and has used some of Merlin’s photographs as a reference such as the yellow-winged bat titled “Dr. Tuttle’s Bat” that graces the cover of his new book, a mother bat with her pup titled  “We Are the Night”, a “Flying Bat”, and her latest, a Marianus flying fox feeding on the pollen of a flower titled “The Pollinator”. It’s part of her Endangered Species series of paintings.

A Marianus flying fox (Pteropus mariannus) pollinating a Frycinetia liana on the Island of Guam. This plant was traditionally used by Pacific Islanders to make fish traps.
Photo by Merlin Tuttle

Rhea says, “The purpose of my endangered species series is to shine a light on the reality that so many well known (common) species are in danger, and populations have been dwindling at an alarming rate. The problem is largely man-made; it is our responsibility to save them. When we lose a species, others suffer and imbalance ensues. By restoring nature’s balance, we will save animals, ourselves and our planet. Bittersweet to paint my favorite animals; I love studying their images while painting them, yet the reason they are part of this series is incredibly sad and frustrating.”

We love Rhea’s paintings and are thrilled to share them with you. “The Pollinator” prints are for sale, along with many others. Rhea generously donates 50% of the sales of her bat paintings and bat prints (where stated) to Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation.

Also find Rhea’s work at dailypaintworks.com/artists/rhea-groepper-5855/artwork

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Loss of Nectar Bats Threatens Durian Farmers

 

A Cave Nectar Bat pollinating durian flowers
A Cave Nectar Bat pollinating durian flowers

The story of Cave Nectar Bats’ contributions and requirements is complex and only beginning to be fully understood. These bats traditionally formed huge colonies in caves, 100,000 individuals in a single cave. However colonies are extremely vulnerable, and few large colonies remain. People commonly set nets over cave entrances, capturing large numbers to be eaten as a delicacy. Also, limestone quarries pose constant threats of permanent destruction of essential caves, and durian growers themselves sometimes kill large numbers.

 

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Documenting Billion-Dollar Bats

Cave Nectar Bat pollinates durian.
Cave Nectar Bat pollinates durian.

 

Dr. Sara Bumrungsri, a leading bat ecologist, invited us to help document the essential roles of Cave Nectar Bats (Eonycteris spelaea) in pollinating some of SE Asia’s most ecologically and economically valuable plants near Hat Yai in Thailand’s Songkhla Province. We set up our bat photo studio in Sara’s lab at the Prince of Songkhla University, caught two cave nectar bats in mist nets set beneath durian flowers in an orchard, tamed them so they would go about their normal activities in Merlin’s enclosure, then brought them fresh flowers so he could photographically document their importance as pollinators.

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Bat Pollinators of the Americas Lecture

Merlin presented his lecture, Bat Pollinators of the Americas, to an enthusiastic, sold-out audience today at the Texas Pollinators PowWow, hosted by the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, despite a winter weather advisory and freezing rain. He introduced a wide variety of nectar-feeding bats and their ecological and economic contributions to habitats from the Sonoran Desert of the North American Southwest to Central American rain forests, Caribbean Islands and the Andean páramo of South America, ending with a summary of bat contributions worldwide. His next speaking engagement, titled The Amazing World of Bats and a Novel View of Conservation, will be given to a plenary session of the 2015  Asia-Pacific Biodiversity Conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 1.676A3026

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The Amazing World of Bat Pollinators

A brown long-tongued bat (Glossophaga commissarisi) is pollinating a Tricanthera flower in Panama. Pollination
A brown long-tongued bat (Glossophaga commissarisi) is pollinating a Tricanthera flower in Panama.

Since finally returning home from a year of extensive travel on behalf of bats, Merlin has been preoccupied with final editing and photo submission for his new book, The Secret World of Bats, My Adventures with the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals  (for release by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2015), writing to publishers in response to greatly exaggerated stories speculating bats to be sources of  diseases like Ebola and preparing to launch a website (February 24) for his newly founded conservation organization, Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation. On February 28 he will be one of eight speakers featured at the 2015 Texas Pollinators Powwow, an all-day event hosted by the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. His hour-long talk (12:40 – 1:40 PM) will feature bat pollinators of the Americas, with emphasis on their ecosystem contributions.  The event is designed to foster improved communication, awareness and preparation for resource managers to participate in pollinator conservation, but is also open to the public.

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Photographing Bats at World’s Largest Cactus Species

Last night in the Mexican desert Merlin was perched on the roof of Fred and Paul’s suburban alongside a giant cardon cactus. He mounted his camera on a tripod with a flash nearby. While we raised a second flash on a tripod duct-taped to three 10-foot poles to create a super tripod. And that was it–simple, huh? No way!

Bats often passed within 2-3 feet of a flower more than a dozen times before deciding to pause for a drink, and we could barely see them coming in the dim light. Catching the split-second action was a real challenge. It took two hours to get even half a dozen useful shots.

Pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) visiting cardon cactus

Pallid bats arrived first, as the flowers were barely opening. But once the Long-nosed bats showed up, we didn’t see even one more Pallid bat. Apparently Long-nosed bats still rule the cardon.

Lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) pollinating cardon cactus

 

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